Quo Vadis, Belgium?

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 31, 2007

I’ve been meaning to write a post on the political chaos in Belgium – but my absence on CT in the last weeks already revealed that I haven’t had a decent chunk of time yet. For those of you in countries where there hasn’t been any reporting – it’s day 82 after the federal elections, and the Flemish and Walloon parties are so bitterly opposed to each other’s demands, that commentators are talking aloud of “the end of Belgium” (which is not going to happen soon, since neither of them wants to give up Brussels – but there are signs that the crisis between the Dutch/Flemish-speaking and Francophone regions is deeper than it has been in decades).

And the more I thought about what I should write, the more it became clear that it’s a complicated issue to write about. One problem is that the interpretations of the political events differ dramatically between the Dutch-language and the Francophone Belgian press – truly as if they are from two different planets – so any (foreign) journalist/reader who masters only one of those two languages will almost inevitably get a distorted or one-sided pictured. Then there is the question whether, as a Flemish person, I can write sufficiently neutral about this. One of the many dimensions of the Belgian drama is the historical disrespect of Francophone Belgians for the Flemish, especially their language; and part of the interpretational differences is whether this is still the case today, and whether one should bother. I’ll keep my own views for another time, but one thing that I noted in international conversations is that it seems hard for most non-Flemish to appreciate why language can be such a big deal (“this francophone Belgian philosopher”:http://www.uclouvain.be/en-11688.html is the Great Exception, and he’s writing a book on linguistic justice). I don’t know what would work as good international comparisons, but in any case there are plenty of other national political sensitivities that are not always easy to understand for outsiders, and where one does need to have some minimal historical knowledge to appreciate present-day sensitivities.

So I will try to write a piece next week trying to explain, as neutrally as I can, the facts and background info; and, if I have some time left, I’ll give my views in another post. But now I first have to mark the essays of my Walloon students.

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stostosto 08.31.07 at 8:48 am

For those of you in countries where there hasn’t been any reporting

That would be us Danes. Thanks, Ingrid.


abb1 08.31.07 at 8:57 am

The ashes of Claes beat against my breast!


James Wimberley 08.31.07 at 9:21 am

In your follow-up, please consider the aspect whether the language of Flanders should be described as Flemish or Dutch. My (ill-informed) understanding is that for a long time Flemish nationalists insisted on calling it Flemish, remembering the unhappy period of patronising Dutch rule after 1815 (Belgians have chips on the shoulder with everything). More recently, with increasing prosperity and self-confidence, Flemings have been able to recognise the linguistic fact that their language is a dialect of Dutch. This makes a difference to outsiders, who take into account in calibrating our sympathies – as perhaps we shouldn’t – the richness of the cultural patrimony of the languages in dispute.


stostosto 08.31.07 at 10:01 am

Ingrid: Are Belgians genuinely bilingual, i.e. speak and understand each others’ respective languages? If so, (or, if not), how are they schooled in this?


reason 08.31.07 at 10:17 am

My experience with Belgians from Flanders is that they all just about speak 4 languages fluently (English and German as well as Flemish and French). I am not so sure about people from Walloonia as I never really had much to do with them.


Katherine 08.31.07 at 10:19 am

I have to say that as a watcher of UK news, I have heard exactly zero about this. It bothers me – I know far far more about the ins and outs of US politics than my European neighbours. You could make some arguments I guess about relative world importance, but still it doesn’t fully explain the detailed coverage of Washington versus the major-events-only-if-you’re-lucky coverage of mainland Europe.

Which is my way of saying – detailed piece on Belgium? Yes please!


Ingrid Robeyns 08.31.07 at 10:25 am

James: I wish I knew the answer. I always thought that my mother tongue was Dutch (the variant spoken in Belgium) but I started to doubt when I moved to the Netherlands in 2002. It’s a tangential issue in the current political crisis, but I would be more than happy to write a seperate post about it.

Stostosto: Most Belgians are not billigual, but have to learn the other langauge at school. All pupils and students in Flanders get French as their second language, from the age of 10 or so, and this language education is at high level. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Flemish Belgians have at least a working knowledge of French (most have a good to excellent knowledge). The question is whether this is symmetrically also the case for the francophone Belgians. I have been told that their language education is much poorer, and in any case I often come across French-speaking employees in Brussels who are not able (or willing) to speak Dutch. One of the elements of the Belgian Drama is that the Flemish resent the fact that the francophone have the (alledged) attitude that there is no reason why they should learn Dutch, since the Flemish speak sufficient French. Then there are the German-speaking Belgians – they are often jokingly called “the last real Belgians”, and give the impression to be the most accomodating group towards the other two groups, in terms of speaking their language. I will try to trace down some more scientific sources for these speculations, but don’t know whether they exist.


stostosto 08.31.07 at 11:29 am

Thanks again, Ingrid. Interesting. Re the French-speakers’ attitude: I am told in Canada all public signs are obliged to be bilingual – except in Quebec…


Philip Hunt 08.31.07 at 11:35 am

Perhaps they could all compromise, and speak English. (Ducks and runs)


des von bladet 08.31.07 at 11:36 am

I, as a foreigner who speaks bad Dutch, bad French and worse German, am the Last Real Belgian. The King used to be, but he got naturalised.

In any case, I’m looking forward very much to reading some informed opinion: in the Netherlands (where I live) Belgian politics does get some coverage, but it is mostly considered too baffling to go into details about. (I even have no idea if there’s a systematic bias towards the Flemish perspective.)


Slocum 08.31.07 at 11:49 am

I’ve spent a bit of time in Wallonie and had a friend who live there, and my understanding was the few Walloons spoke any Flemish. But practically speaking, it makes sense. I suspect that the Flemings learn French not so much because of Wallonia, but because of France. And the Walloons don’t learn Flemish because, even including the Dutch, there just aren’t that many of them and given there aren’t that many Dutch/Flemish speakers in the world, the Dutch and Flemish learn English and French out of necessity. My friend claimed, in fact, that the common language between the Walloons and Flemings was English. Go to Brussels (or Bruxelles) and speak Flemish or French to the wrong person and you might offend, but English is safe.

And Wallonia has it’s own local, internal language issue — I recall seeing signs there exhorting people to teach their children Walon (which, I believe, is not happening and the language is disappearing).

To North American observers, the dynamic seems to have quite a lot in common with the situation in Canada. And in terms of coverage, as it happens it had CNN on briefly while fixing a cup of coffee and there was a story about Belgium, but it was more a lighthearted piece interviewing Belgians who didn’t really care if they had a government or not.


Alison 08.31.07 at 12:00 pm

Re Canada:

In Quebec, even commercial signs must be in French. Outside of Quebec, commercial signs are in the language of the customers.

Document, services and signs tend to be in the languages mandated by the level of government responsible for them. The airport in Toronto is signed bilingually because of its federal connection. The calendar for municipal garbage pickup is available in many, many languages, because Torontonians speak hundreds of them, and the government wants people to put out the right sort on the right day. Provincial laws are bilingual in Ontario, but most public servants are not. The courts have the capacity to operate in French, but it is infrequent except where there is a high density of Francophones.

Clear? Our weather is in Celsius and our ovens are in Fahrenheit. Our buildings are in imperial and our roads are in metric. Our cheese is advertised in pounds, but the shelf signs are normalized for comparison in grams.

We are bilingual and multicultural. Aboriginal people belong to First Nations, but are not included in the Constitution as a founding people, like the British and French. Quebecers tend to ignore the rest of us, but most of our prime ministers (and all of the best ones) have been from Quebec.

There will be a quiz later.


Hafiz 08.31.07 at 12:12 pm

I think Malaysia would be a good international comparison. In reporting, the tone between English, Malay and Chinese dailies differs remarkably.


Cranky Observer 08.31.07 at 12:19 pm

> Perhaps they could all compromise,
> and speak English. (

In my then-employer’s office building in Brussels all the safety-of-life signs were in English and I was told that your observation was in fact correct in that case. I was also told by both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking coworkers (separately) that it is best for Americans traveling in rural Belgium to just try English first even if they speak French or (much less likely) Dutch since if they use the wrong language no one in that village will speak to them.



Jacob Christensen 08.31.07 at 12:40 pm

Re: Brussels. Now that we have the EU, one solution could be to make the city an EU mandate with Mr. CFSP as supreme ruler. In that way both Flanders and Wallonia lose (or win) equally.

Alternatively you could go for the Andorra solution with the Flemish and Walloon PM as co-princes. (Well, maybe not…)


stostosto 08.31.07 at 12:41 pm

Bruxelles DC?


Homer Simpson 08.31.07 at 12:57 pm

Stupid Flanders!


Z 08.31.07 at 1:04 pm

I never read anything on the subject outside of the conventional wisdom transmitted by french media, so here it is pretty unaldutered:
-there is an economic element in the partition, compared to the separatist movement in northern Italy.
-the linguistic debate is rarely commented upon.
-France would be pretty happy to integrate Wallonie if the separation happened (quite surprising but often mentionned, talk about biased coverage).
I am not saying this is true or that I believe it, I am saying that this is what is often heard in french media. Impatient to have Ingrid’s take.


Mrs Tilton 08.31.07 at 1:05 pm

Once met a fellow in Bruges (désolé: Brugge) who told me he’d gladly speak French with French people, but not with Walloons.

I asked him why, if Flemings hated Walloons so much, they didn’t simply pare off and become independent, or even join the Netherlands. He stared at me as though I had two heads.


des von bladet 08.31.07 at 1:22 pm

Mrs T: If you ever want to be looked at like you have _three_ heads, suggest that to a Dutchperson. (Offer void if redeemed in Limburg(NL) or Noord Brabant.)


Akshay 08.31.07 at 1:40 pm

Re: Dutch v/s Flemish.
AFAIK, The Dutch and Flemish both speak Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (Standard Dutch). The Flemish are much better at it, due to linguistic patriotism, much like the Quebecois speak better French than the French. The Flemish use words specific to their region, and have a “French” accent, which makes them the only pleasant-sounding Dutch Speakers. There surely is no bigger difference between Netherlands’ and Flanders’ Dutch than between UK and US English.

“Flemish” is a name for the collection of dialects of Dutch spoken in the southern Low Countries. Presumably, these dialects are dying out.


franck 08.31.07 at 1:45 pm

I think comment 11 gets at the heart of it. Since when is language policy about practicality? Especially in France, language is about beauty, rigor, classicism, protection and strengthening of the state, equality, etc., but it is not about practicality. French speakers talk about practicality, until one mentions languages like English, and then suddenly language is suffused with culture.

A lot of this comes from France, where destruction of other languages is the official policy of the French state.

The attitude of Francophones toward Flemophones (is that even a word?) is a real problem and at the root of much of the discord. Political power used to be concentrated in the French speakers, and amazingly, even to this day French speakers in Belgium see no problem with this, or the forced Frenchification of Brussels.

For a sadly humerous take on this, take a look at the gymnastics the authors of “The Story of French” do to promote French at the expense of other languages while attempting with a straight face to say this increases language diversity.


Akshay 08.31.07 at 1:48 pm

Re: Ingrid’s feeling that Standard Dutch is not her mother tongue

It just occurred to me that Ingrid’s mother tongue might be one of the Flemish Dialects. Because living in Holland, I certainly have never met a Flemish person, or seen one on TV, who spoke anything but Standard Dutch.


abb1 08.31.07 at 1:49 pm

…one thing that I noted in international conversations is that it seems hard for most non-Flemish to appreciate why language can be such a big deal…

Yes, it’s hard. What’s ‘linguistic justice’ and why can’t individuals just use the language they like? Seriously. Seems like another example of identity politics nonsense.


Katherine 08.31.07 at 2:01 pm

I think there are a lot of people who would liked to have spoken the language they liked, but have been prevented from doing so. E.g. Catalan in Spain. That is when language can be such a big deal – when people try to stop you using it.


Katherine 08.31.07 at 2:03 pm

I meant Catalan in Spain in the not too distant past, not currently.


franck 08.31.07 at 2:08 pm

Re linguistic politics:

Because in many cases, the state prevents you with physical violence from using the language you wish to use. Imposition of public schooling in an alien tongue is almost always accompanied by physical violence or public shaming. If you read memoirs of language activists, you almost always see examples of physical beatings when they tried to speak their language in schools. In dictatorships, it is just more serious – there they shoot you for speaking the wrong language.

That’s why there is a European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.


franck 08.31.07 at 2:10 pm

One interesting thing about the development of French in Belgium is that so many French speakers are descended from dutch speakers – see the professor Ingrid mentioned – Philippe Van Parijs.

Historically much of north-western France near Belgium was also Dutch-speaking. There’s just been a concerted effort to kill Dutch off there and in Wallonia. They just didn’t succeed in Flanders.


abb1 08.31.07 at 2:13 pm

Yes, if you’re forced to stop using your language, that’s bad, no question about that.

Here, however, I see phrases like ‘disrespect for a language’ and ‘linguistic justice’. That’s too much, isn’t it.


Akshay 08.31.07 at 2:26 pm

Re 26: Since Philippe’s family was from Paris he is probably descended from French speakers who emigrated to the north. Huguenot’s?

Re 22: I would mostly agree with abb1 here. Linguistic politics is often rather heavily tied up with unsavory identity politics. Flanders is an obvious example, with the Vlaams Belang. And nobody is beating up the Flemish for speaking Dutch, unlike Catalan children were quite recently.

That said, abb1 can just click the link to van Parijs’ web page. He seems to have developed a very nuanced position, for instance supporting English as a lingua franca for academia and the European public sphere. He also notes the intrinsic value of linguistic diversity and the pragmatic advantages of being able to communicate in your mother tongue, and thinks that the state should work to keep different languages alive. If this is still identity politics, it is not the dangerous sort.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.31.07 at 3:05 pm

yes a quick note to say that if there are comments in the moderation queue (as it was the last couple of hours – these are comments from people who have never commented before or use different addresses etc.), then the numbering of the posts shifts. Hence Akshay’s numbering in his last post (#31) should now probably be 23 and 29.


franck 08.31.07 at 3:06 pm


Many things were historically tied up with unsavory identity politics, including socialized medicine. It’s a very active political question in Belgium whether the French language is preferred over Flemish, despite it being the minority language. There have been cases of preferential housing allowances in Brussels for French-speakers, for example.

It’s also impossible to look at this without looking at the history, where French speakers were historically an elite in Belgium that controlled political and economic power.

A lot of this is bound up with the loss of power in Wallonia in the last half of the twentieth century.


Doug K 08.31.07 at 3:46 pm

#25, “What’s ‘linguistic justice’ and why can’t individuals just use the language they like? ”

cf Soweto, 1976,

“A 1972 poll had found that 98% of young Sowetans did not want to be taught in Afrikaans. The association of Afrikaans with apartheid prompted black South Africans to prefer English. Even the homelands regimes chose English and an indigenous African language as official languages. In addition, English was gaining prominence as the language most often used in commerce and industry. The 1974 decree was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans.”

why, indeed, can individuals not use the language they like ?
because as franck notes, the state has and will use violence against those individuals..

Afrikaans is yet another derivative of Dutch. Oddly in my experience Afrikaans is closer to Flemish than it is to Dutch, at least in the written fragments I’ve seen. For example the BBC site
has ‘Aangename kennismaking’ for ‘pleased to meet you’ and ‘Tot ziens’ for ‘goodbye’. Afrikaans has ‘aangename kennis’ and ‘Totsiens’, where Dutch has entirely different phrases.
Never been there to hear either Dutch or Flemish though..


abb1 08.31.07 at 4:32 pm

Doug, if the people who like to speak Flemish in Belgium are in a situation comparable with that of black South Africans in 1976, then the language should be the last of their worries.

Also, I strongly disagree with Franck that it’s “impossible to look at this without looking at the history” – in the sense implied in Franck’s comment, that is. If every little ethnic fraction in Europe decided to keep the score of every little grievance their ancestors might have had against every other ethnic fraction over the last few hundred years, it would’ve been the end of Europe right there. Why not just declare an amnesty and agree that the big history lesson is that all this identity pride stuff is nothing but trouble.


Shelby 08.31.07 at 4:39 pm

If Ingrid is concerned about her ability to accurately and impartially represent the francophone-Belgian position, is there an English-speaking blogger of that persuasion who might be invited to alternate posts with her, either on his/her own site or as a guest here?


franck 08.31.07 at 5:02 pm


Tell it to the French. They are the worst offenders.


Omri 08.31.07 at 6:03 pm

My 4 days in Brugge recently were certainly educational. I saw a higher frequency of Portuguese signs in Boston, Polish signs in Chicago, hell, Arabic signs in Tel Aviv & Kfar Saba than I saw French signs in Brugge. I didn’t troll for reactions by using my French (some rudimentary Dutch and my English served me fine), but that ever-present level of discourtesy towards fellow Belgians was something I would never want to live around.


Mrs Tilton 08.31.07 at 7:13 pm


without in any way wishing to excuse discourtesy, I’d note that there was a time in Belgium’s history when Wallonia was the richer and more influential part of the state. And in those days, francophones generally expected the, emm, batavophones to speak French. These days the schoen is on the other voet, economically speaking. So I can understand that Flemings might be disinclined these days to tug the linguistic forelock.

Similarly, and though I have less than no sympathy for Quebec separatism, I recall reading a Québecois francophone noting that, back in the day, a meeting with 19 francophones and one anglophone was conducted en anglais, whereas these days 19 anglophones will speak French if one francophone is there. I’m not quite willing to begrudge that.


Quo Vadis 08.31.07 at 7:18 pm

I find emphasis of this discussion a confusing contrast to discussions cultural identity in the context of a multicultural society. The focus seems to be on the negative political implications of cultural differences rather than the positive cultural implications. Language is certainly among the most inconvenient of cultural differences, but it is also one of the most important given that it is a conduit for many other fundamental cultural elements like literature and song.


Mrs Tilton 08.31.07 at 7:23 pm

Oh, and by the way; I’ve seen plenty of Arabic signposting in Israel, but can’t recall seeing any Portuguese signage in Boston, though I lived there three years. There was a bit of a Brazilian neighbourhood along Comm Ave, and there might have been some shops there advertising in Portuguese, but I never saw anything official in that language.

Even that, of course, might be a higher incidence than of French-language signs in Flanders. But then, what of it? Signs are in French in Wallonia, in Dutch in Flanders; in Brussels, they’re in both (and, I imagine, in one or both plus German in that tiny eastern community). This bespeaks nothing more than the national compromise. I agree that this compromise is baffling to outsiders like myself — why don’t they just split up? But for whatever reason, Belgians on the whole don’t seem to want to split.


Samuel 08.31.07 at 9:29 pm

Would the fierce anti Hindi protests that happened in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu be an apt comparison?
There were big general strikes and mass protests against Hindi being made a primary language in Tamil Nadu a state that derives it’s name from the language Tamil.Tamil Nadu literally is translated as the land of Tamil The protests were successful in preventing Hindi from being made a primary language.

I am not sure if there would be such huge protests today if the government tried bringing in Hindi again though.

Some background http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Hindi_agitations


willem luyckx 08.31.07 at 11:37 pm

i’m flemish and i start to think, and maybe i’m totally totally wrong, but i think it’s pure psychology… you can’t love another if you don’t lover yourself first… so it’s easy to forgot the past 10 centuries maybe for people that has nothing to do with this…but when you’re in the psyche of all this..it jus does affect, it’s not that flemish or walloon people hate each other, it’s just like a marriage that does go wrong, who is to blame ? it’s just human, when it doesn’t mix and faults are made it’s diffiuclt to restore and the two sides will always differ in opinions, and can be both right and wrong… i never was flemish speratist minded and i love the mundial mix and culture of brussels and belgium, but it just does feel like a marriage not worth saving, although there is a child involved, brussels.

my opinion :)


Harold 09.01.07 at 1:53 am

Tony Judt wrote a very fine essay about Belgium in the New York Review of Books some years ago in which he quoted Baudelaire’s observation that Belgium was what France might have been had the French Revolution [i.e., the secular state] never occurred. However that may be, the Church has played a role in Belgian history and not an entirely savory one. Leuven (Louvain) is home to the largest Catholic University in the world and is a hotbed of linguistic separatism much of it fomented by priests, who tended to be on the German side during the war (despite the country’s having been invaded and bombed repeatedly by the Germans).

The other baleful influence in Belgium is an extreme federalism, which prevents the various local governments from cooperating with each other to combat crime and corruption.

That said, I myself spent a supremely wonderful vacation in Flanders (c. 2000)– much of it in Leuven, as it happens. We found the people to be the friendliest and most unassuming, the art, architecture, gardens, and churches most exquisite, and the food out of this world. I hope that they can solve their bitter problems. At one time (before the wars of religion) they were the among the most prosperous and advanced nations in the world and they have the potential to be so again.


Matt Austern 09.01.07 at 3:52 am

I know very little about Belgium, but I don’t find it even slightly surprising that these tensions exist. Isn’t it pretty much a truism that it’s very hard for binational states to work? The details differ, but it’s easy to think of bi- and multi-national states that have fallen apart peacefully (Czechoslovakia) or otherwise (Yugoslavia), or of relatively stable binational states with ongoing tensions (Spain; Canada; the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and it’s pretty hard to think of any binational states that don’t have an uneasy relationship between the different nationalities.

At the risk of hijacking the thread… That’s one reason why I’m nervous about the proposals to turn Israel/Palestine into a binational state. Even with the best will in the world, the odds of a binational state succeeding seem to be poor.


Nick Kaufman 09.01.07 at 5:36 am

Just to clarify, because I find the Belgian case very interesting.

The Belgian Dutch stayed within Belgium because they were the ones conquered by the French in the course of 200 year-old French campaigns to subjugate the Low Countries; a fact which in itself ended up forging a separate identity for Dutch under their jurisdiction?

Or they stayed within Belgium because they were catholics as opposed to their Protestant brethren further to the East?

or a little of both?


john b 09.01.07 at 8:28 am

#45 – UK *bi*national? Cer o ‘ma!


Dauthendey 09.01.07 at 8:54 am


First, the Flemish do not speak Dutch with a French accent. Second, the British don’t speak “better” English than Americans, just like Flemings don’t speak “better” Dutch than the Dutch. Just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever read on a blog…


abb1 09.01.07 at 9:32 am

…uneasy relationship between the different nationalities

I have no statistics, but I suspect that in places where there is no discrimination most people don’t care much about nationalities. There’s always a few who value their being White or French or Flemish or whatever above all and they will, of course, hatemonger and make troubles. It’s just the question of how successful they are.

In Czechoslovakia, as I’m sure in most other places (someone already suggested Northern Italy – great example), the issues are almost purely economic; often nationalism is just a tool.


Richard J 09.01.07 at 9:55 am

As I understand it, the Flemish, despite some of them being the most Protestant cities, ended up being Belgian because they were the cities the Spanish managed to smack down good in the Dutch Revolt.


Oluseye Bassir 09.01.07 at 12:04 pm

The word I don’t hear mentioned is tribalism. If this were Africa it would be all chalked up to “tribalism”.


Wwolof 09.01.07 at 12:08 pm

much like the Quebecois speak better French than the French

Dear oh dear oh dear. I do not believe you know the first thing about this subject.


Akshay 09.01.07 at 12:38 pm


Firstly, the Belgian education system is famously good. According to the recent Unicef child welfare study it is the best in the OECD. Flemish children do outperform the Dutch in grammar, syntax, spelling and the like. More anecdotally, cross border language quizzes, spelling bees etc. are usually won by Flemish contestants. Many Dutch people think these facts also have something to do with the Flemish *caring* more about their language. But then again, we might be wrong, just like most French people I know might be wrong in saying the Quebecois speak “purer” French.

Secondly, I said the difference between the Flemish and Dutch languages was like the difference between UK and US English, I have no opinion on the quality of UK and US speakers.

Thirdly, I did put “French” accent in scare quotes. Perhaps I should have said “French-like” sonority with occasional French-derived loan-words?

Fourthly, why the insult? What’s the point?


nick s 09.01.07 at 2:11 pm

doug k @34: That selection’s misleading, at least as far as your examples is concerned. ‘Tot ziens’ is common enough in Amsterdam, at least. Plus, this.

It’s a cliché among academic historians that a language is a dialect with an army; but even that’s problematic, given the disparities between linguisitic standardisation and national unification. Anyway, it just shows that the presumption that the EU might check the century’s trend towards homogenous nation states through its support of regional subsidiarity runs into trouble with a country like Belgium.


ejh 09.01.07 at 2:27 pm

In Czechoslovakia, as I’m sure in most other places (someone already suggested Northern Italy – great example), the issues are almost purely economic

Where’s Czechoslovakia?


Jacob Christensen 09.01.07 at 3:46 pm

@56: If we change that to

…In Czechoslovakia…the issues were almost purely economic…

then the statement should be obvious.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.01.07 at 3:55 pm

56 posts and no reference to what Charles V said about his horses.


Harold 09.01.07 at 4:08 pm

As I understand it, William of Orange advised the inhabitants of Antwerp to open the dykes and flood the fields to thwart the Spanish rule. This is what they had done in what it now Holland, and it had been successful. The people of Antwerp were reluctant because it would mean drowning their sheep. So they were conquered and remained Catholic. Thousands of Protestants fled, taking their skills and literacy with them (between 1565 and 1590, the population of Antwerp plummeted from 105,000 inhabitants to 40,000). The Spanish rule had been particularly oppressive — in one celebrated instance an influential group of Flemish Catholic nobles (one martyr was Egmont) had been put to death for advocating religious toleration (see Schiller/Verdi’s Don Carlos and Beethoven’s Egmont), which was considered treasonous crime!

We saw an ironically revealing allegorical painting in the Bruges art museum entitled Mars the God of War [Phillip II] bringing the arts to Flanders. Typically Belgian. The irony was that in that museum after 1580, the incredibly rich of age of great painting (in Bruges, at least) fell off to almost nothing (there were no Rubens’ paintings in Bruges– though one of the Cathedrals there boasts a sculpture by Michelangelo). The religious wars lasted until 1648, when the Dutch silted up the harbor of Antwerp.

The Hapsburgs were generous patrons of the visual arts and of lace-making, but not of literacy. By 1800 (so our guidebook said) the rate of literacy in Belgium had fallen to 3 percent! The Austrian Hapsburgs of the 18th century were quite enlightened and tried to introduce reforms, but the by then stupified population revolted against them. It took Napoleon’s occupation to unsilt the harbor.

I don’t think the situation in Belgium really compares to that of the Middle East. I do think the troubles may be connected to centuries of being brutalized by top-down, authoritarian foreign rule — and then King Leopold — a pathological case! Southern Belgium, which is Franco-phone, was one of the first industrialized areas of Europe — now it is in decline with an antiquated infrastructure. It was the seat of much socialist union activity (see Zola’s Germinal) – as well as of a reactionary, French-speaking nobility. The much despised north was largely agricultural and has skipped over industrialization going straight into high-tech prosperity. Reactionary elements of both north and south have an interest in keeping the country divided (i.e., to contain the left).


abb1 09.01.07 at 4:16 pm

Czechoslovakia will live forever in the hearts of Czechoslovakians.


Harold 09.01.07 at 4:24 pm

Correction–I should have said “by 1700 the rate of literacy had fallen to 3 percent” not 1800


Saif 09.01.07 at 7:08 pm

It occurs to me that the imperfect polity that is Belgium on the downslide equates to the acme of the ‘two states’ concept of Israel and Palestine; especially if both communities can be persuaded that neither can give up Jerusalem.


Harold 09.01.07 at 10:49 pm

I am surprised at the comments here.

Belgium is not a bi-national state, though you could say it is an artificial creation of the Congress of Vienna (1815). In the middle ages it was part of the Kingdom of Burgundy. Both the Flemish and the Walloons have the same religion.

It is really a case study in centuries-long top-down mal-governance on the part of myopic and selfish elites (the Spanish and then the Francophone aristocracy). It is useful to contrast it with Switzerland, which also has a multilingual populace but which, unlike Belgium, has a long and peaceful history of self rule.


mijnheer 09.02.07 at 4:16 am

“Czechoslovakia will live forever in the hearts of Czechoslovakians.”
Good one, abb1. But I suspect you’re wrong to generalize that “the issues are almost purely economic; often nationalism is just a tool.” In Quebec, economics no doubt played a role in the genesis of the independence movement, but that was then, and despite endless wrangling over abstruse statistics having to do with federal transfer payments to the provinces, which is not going to turn anyone’s crank, I think economics now plays almost no role at all in driving separatism. My feeling is that it’s almost entirely a matter of nationalist sentiment, despite the fact that politically Quebec already enjoys wide sovereign powers. People don’t live by bread alone. Still, separatists have had a hard time selling the idea of a clean break with Canada. There’s a joke that goes, “What Quebeckers really want is an independent Quebec in a strong, united Canada.”

Alison: Thanks for setting the heathen straight. You might have added that although Canada is officially bilingual, only one province (New Brunswick) is officially bilingual, and that the territory of Nunavut has four official languages: Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, English, and French.


mijnheer 09.02.07 at 4:36 am

Dutch vs. Afrikaans: I remember seeing an interview on Dutch television during the Apartheid era, between a Dutch journalist and a South African official. The journalist was speaking Dutch and the official was replying in Afrikaans, and they seemed to have no difficulty understanding each other. However, whenever the Afrikaner spoke, Dutch subtitles were flashed on the screen for the viewers.


Danny Yee 09.02.07 at 7:14 am

I’ve read an excellent novel which considers some of these issues, from a Flemish perspective during and after WWII – Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium.

But I don’t know much about the current situation, so I’m looking forward to Ingrid’s promised post.


abb1 09.02.07 at 9:43 am

@64: People don’t live by bread alone.

Moses came up with this one, and then Jesus repeated it, right?

Sure, I understand that people can hate each other because of different religions, but a friggin language? I dunno, it just seems that there must be something more substantial, tangible behind it; it’s just too silly.


brooksfoe 09.02.07 at 12:20 pm

Sure, I understand that people can hate each other because of different religions, but a friggin language?

That’s kind of a weird attitude for a materialist to take. Religions concern completely abstract mumbo jumbo that doesn’t actually exist. At least language is definitely there.

Anyway, there’s a lot more going on here than language. There have been social, economic and political differences tracking the linguistic divide since the 17th century. As noted above, a large portion of the Vlaams population sympathized with the Germans in WWII – something that divided them rather sharply from their Dutch co-linguists as well as their French-speaking compatriots. And that split was already rooted in hundreds of years of distinctions.

Incidentally, Vlaams doesn’t seem like Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands to me. If for no other reason than that the Dutch government keeps altering spelling and grammar rules, and the Flemish don’t always follow.


abb1 09.02.07 at 12:46 pm

Oh, religions definitely do exist. Your religion may define certain behavior as evil while your neighbor’s religion treats it as commendable; confrontation is all but inevitable. Language is nothing like that. You say tomayto/I say tomato – big deal.


Harold 09.02.07 at 2:21 pm

It is interesting that the late founder of “postmodernist” literary criticism, Paul de Mann, who was associated with the Flemish Fascist movement during the war, became famous for his philosophy that language was meaningless.


will 09.03.07 at 4:33 am

Ah, “Political Crisis in Belgium” — surely the stuff of lurid headlines and intense public interest.


reason 09.03.07 at 9:11 am


or of relatively stable binational states with ongoing tensions

… for example the USA…


reason 09.03.07 at 9:20 am


… supporting English as a lingua franca …



Brussels observer 09.03.07 at 4:19 pm

If my short-term memory is OK, a public opinion poll taken in late August showed about 70 percent of Belgians did not care about the crisis (as the newspapers call it) of living without a government.

Perhaps this is because the federal government has relatively little power, so much having devolved to Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

No wonder no one notices.

The reason there is no government is that the two regions vote separately. There were three major parties but nowadays each has a Wallonian and a Flemish version. So there are six major parties.

Flemish premier Yves Leterme, who failed to put together enough parties to have a majority in Parliament, is still likely to win as prime minister.

But he is having trouble winning support from any party in Wallonia, where he is much disliked because he wants to further increase the power of the regions.

That likely means less tax money going from rich Flanders to relatively poor Wallonia, although in Flanders the amount of the cross-region flow tends to be exaggerated.


Caslon1 09.03.07 at 4:24 pm

I was born in Antwerp sixty years ago and left when I was ten years old. I still speak Flemish, but it’s a form of Flemish not often heard these days. When I watch the occasional Flemish movie on cable, I can’t understand most of the dialogue. I have to rely on the English subtitles. The same holds true for Flemish tourists I periodically encounter here in San Diego. They might as well be Germans. On the other hand, there’s a sizable community of South Africans here who speak Afrikaans. We have no problem communicating.


jamie_2002 09.03.07 at 6:55 pm

>Moses came up with this one, and then Jesus >repeated it, right?

>Sure, I understand that people can hate each >other because of different religions, but a >friggin language? I dunno, it just seems that >there must be something more substantial, >tangible behind it; it’s just too silly.

Sure, it’s not just the language. The language is symbolic of the political/ economic tensions. In Quebec, the “Quiet Revolution” came with the slogan “maitre chez nous”– masters of our own house. The desire to control political and economic life is manifested in the desire to conduct political and economic life in French.

Even without political/ economic struggles, to be prohibited from using one’s own language is to be silenced. That’s a profound assault on what it means to be human.


abb1 09.03.07 at 8:52 pm

Jamie, yes, being prohibited from using your own language sure sucks, but in Canada and Belgium who is prohibited from using their own language? Sounds way more dramatic than it actually is. The Quebec situation is “profound assault on what it means to be human”? Please…


Guy 09.03.07 at 9:19 pm

“Incidentally, Vlaams doesn’t seem like Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands to me. If for no other reason than that the Dutch government keeps altering spelling and grammar rules, and the Flemish don’t always follow.”

The Dutch government does no such thing. The Taalunie (language union) is responsible for that.

As far as language proficiency goes, I used to find Flemish people to be much more careful in their use of grammar and spelling. However, when it comes to “fluency” the Dutch, in general, win hands down. This has of course nothing to do with intricate qualities, much of it is history.

Ingrid, if you need back-up for your post, I have been thinking to do something on AFOE with this. I only hesitate because I have no idea to explain to a non-Belgian audience the hot iron of the splitting of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. Also, I haven’t followed every single detail of the “crisis” too closely. I live in France now and, frankly, I did not have the stomach for it this time around. It is very complex (one of the solutions they will possibly come up with is some sort of interim government for two year, since there are plans to have local, national and European elections coincide).

Anyhow, my credentials (always relative, of course): Dutch guy with 28 years of life in Flanders behind him (from the age of 8) with a degree in translation. The translation part is interesting because Dutch is my working language and I have been working 17 years now for a Flemish company and for a Flemish audience. I know their sensibilities.


Guy 09.03.07 at 9:39 pm

@54: “Many Dutch people think these facts also have something to do with the Flemish caring more about their language.”

This is certainly part of it. The Flemish had to fight for the recognition of their language. On the other hand, by them time they got their recognition another problem surfaced: “What kind of Dutch do we want to speak?” It shouldn’t be too Dutch and neither should it have too many French influences. For instance. The Dutch word for umbrella is “paraplu”. Some Flemish purists at the time rejected this word for its Frenchness and invented the word “regenscherm” (rainshield), which is still in use. At the same time there is still much resistance against the use of the typical Dutch (as in Netherlands) word “leuk”, roughly “cool”.

To make it even more complicated. Even the respected Hugo Claus was chastised by some of his fellow countrymen, as late as 1983, for his master piece The Sorrow of Belgium because… there was too much dialect in it. It was, in other words, too Flemish.

I discussed this often with Flemish friends and one reason they suggested for Flemish people being more “correct” in their use of Dutch is this: (over)compensation for insecurity about how they should speak and write. That is why Flemish people, not all of them, tend to be less spontaneous and “fluent” than the careless Dutch who never really had to consider these questions.

When I speak of “fluency” and “fluent”, I mean creativity and wit in speaking “Algemeen Nederlands” (the Beschaafd has been dropped some time ago). A Flemish person is as fluent in his own language (very often a mixture of dialect and Algemeen Nederlands) as any Dutch person.

But it is much more complex, really.


Guy 09.03.07 at 9:40 pm

And sorry about the typo’s.


Guy 09.03.07 at 9:45 pm

typo’s = typos *sigh*

I am going to bed, sorry.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.04.07 at 5:40 pm

Guy, you’re absolutely right that it is all *very* complex, which is why there hasn’t been any substantial post from me on this topic yet. And I’m worried about how I am going to write without getting all of us lost in the details, without being overly simplistic. I am sure I will fail to bring about all complexities, but hey, we have the comments section for readers (like you) to add layers of complexity! ;-)
I think the comments here already added some very interesting details regarding the language issue.
On Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde: I’ll just give it a try…. I promised to post it this week, but if I see how many questions I myself still have in my head, it’s probably going to be on Sundayevening…


Kurt 09.05.07 at 8:19 pm

Some random thoughts :

Most of the people in Belgium do not really care about these language issues, B-H-V, and other related issues. Ask 100 people in Belgium what the B-H-V issue is, and if you’re lucky there will be one who can actually explain this. Language issues ? In daily life most of the people never have to use the other language except for those working in certain regions.

Media and some political parties seem eager to make a big deal of it thou. Perception seems to dominate the discussion I have the impression.

I would be more interested in knowing why there seems to be such a big difference between what is reported in the media or by politicians and ordinary people in the street. Till now no serious effort has been made to investigate this.

Also it would be interesting to analyse why the knowledge of French by Flemish and vice versa is rapidly declining.

And to end, when telling my Spanish friends that apparently some people seem to want to split Belgium in two, they started laughing : “Such a small country ? If you split it in two, nothing will be left…”.

@Ingrid : I suppose you worked with Prof Schokkaert at the KUL ? I used to study Economics there as well :-)

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